This feature first appeared in the November edition of Everton magazine. You can purchase a digital version or a subscription here.
Paul Simpson assembled his 21-strong battalion, ready for their assault on world glory.
The England Under-20s manager and his players had been separated for only two months. But Simpson detected a change in one of his young bucks.
Following a Four Nations competition in France, Dominic Calvert-Lewin had featured in a handful of games for Everton, maintaining an upward trajectory that has characterised the 20-year-old’s embryonic career.
“There had been a huge growing-up process,” Simpson tells Everton magazine. “He was always a sensible bloke, but he seemed to really grow up over that period when he was regularly involved with Everton’s first team.
“He is a really good character who, judging by the way he went about things, had obviously had a good upbringing in football.”
That upbringing, in fact, is littered with similar tales. Simpson was merely becoming acquainted with the Calvert-Lewin familiar to a plethora of the player’s managers and coaches – past and present – prepared to form a figurative queue around the block to deliver their testimony on this athletic young footballer, blessed with a ferocious work ethic and endearingly grounded attitude.
The exponential maturation in him detected by Simpson, unbeknown to the young Lions’ boss, was par for the course.
Calvert-Lewin learns, adapts and improves. Just ask Bira Dembele. And Ryan Cresswell, too, for that matter.
“He was shy and never really said much, initially,” says Cresswell, who shared both a flat and countless car journeys with Calvert-Lewin, during the rookie forward’s five-month loan spell with Northampton Town.
“He would just sit there and listen. But then he said something back to me in the changing room one day, and the lads were like, ‘Hey up, when did you sign?’
“I said to him in the car, ‘It’s about time you said something and gave me some back’.
“I used to hammer him every day, just to get him involved. I wanted to bring him out of his shell.
“Then he just kept giving me stick back, it went from me hammering him and getting the laughs to the two of us bickering… it was good.”
Calvert-Lewin, who signed a new Everton deal until June 2023 on Thursday, joined Northampton at the outset of the 2015/16 campaign. He was 18 and his first-team experience amounted to two substitute outings for Sheffield United
“He was a typical young loanee - didn’t say much, a timid lad,” Cresswell tells Everton magazine.
“I knew he had played a few games in National League North, but he wasn’t particularly aggressive on the pitch.
“He came on leaps and bounds during his time with us.”
Calvert-Lewin’s dose of non-league football came via an ephemeral stint with Stalybridge Celtic. It lasted only five matches, but yielded six goals and a precious experience still paying dividends today.
“It’s a period I will remember for the rest of my life, certainly my football career,” Calvert-Lewin has said. “It was one of my most enjoyable experiences as a footballer, so far, because Stalybridge was my first spell of men’s football.”
Stories are legion of footballers stationed with loan clubs and adopting an insular attitude, viewing their temporary employers through a purely self-interested lens.
Calvert-Lewin saw the bigger picture.
He talks about his first professional goal, scored for Stalybridge in a 2014 Boxing Day derby clash with Hyde United, with comparable enthusiasm to that he reserves for a dissection of the strike which won England the Under-20 World Cup last summer.
“It was the first time I had the feeling of scoring a goal in front of fans,” he said. “No matter how many fans I play in front of now, that will always be a special moment. It was a local derby, too. Stalybridge were in and around the relegation zone at that time, so it was a massive game for them.
“I got smashed with an elbow in the first 20 minutes - I’ve still got the scar now - but I carried on playing the game. As a young lad, I was thinking, ‘I’ve been smashed in the face, so maybe I will come off’.
“But I was told to stay on. There was blood everywhere, but experiences like that toughen you up. I’m thankful for it now.”
Stalybridge were flailing away fruitlessly in the sixth-tier’s lower reaches when boss Keith Briggs floated the idea of borrowing the coltish teenager from Sheffield United.
The club’s directors, remembers Briggs, suspected their manager had misplaced his marbles.
Briggs recalls, with similar clarity, the seismic influence wielded by his whippersnapper loanee.
“His attitude was fantastic and he came in with no airs and graces about him,” Briggs has said.
“He was a cracking lad and just got his head down. Obviously, Dom didn’t have the kind of experience that helped many of his teammates - but he was still a class apart when it came to the specimen of the lad.
“He’s over 6ft 1ins tall and, even then, he was powerful. He glided along the pitch and just hit the ground running for us.”
Specimen is precisely the term Cresswell reaches for when considering his former colleague’s physique.
The two Yorkshiremen have formed a lasting friendship, founded on their shared roots, developed on 100-mile schlepps from Sheffield to Northampton – and afforded greater substance when the pair were billeted in club accommodation for significant portions of each week.
“That lad can put food away,” laughs Cresswell. “Honestly, his plate after training was mounded up. We had a two-bed flat in a hotel and we used to get one of the other lads to cook for us, it was like you were feeding the entire floor in the hotel.
“You used to think, ‘Where is this lad putting it!’ He was a gannet.
“And his work ethic… I used to say to him, ‘You need a day off’. He would play on a Saturday, then go into Sheffield United on the Sunday to do a gym session.
“If we had a day off on the Wednesday, he would be in the gym again. I’d say, ‘Have a day off, let your body relax’. He would just say, ‘I feel good’.”
The sound of the front door shutting behind him at the end of the day did not act to dry up Calvert-Lewin’s competitive juices, either.
“We had this little sponge basketball,” says Cresswell. “We played a game where we had to half-volley it into a small bin with a flip-up lid, that was sat on the other side of the living room. It was properly competitive!”
A ball boy for two years at Sheffield United and a dyed-in-the-wool Blade, Calvert-Lewin signed for the club just past his eighth birthday, on 28 April 2005.
Almost 10 years to the day later – 25 April 2015 – then Blades manager Nigel Clough had the privilege of acting as kingmaker, when he handed Calvert-Lewin his first-team debut, sending on the teenager as a substitute in a League One draw at Leyton Orient.
The point they prised from their trip to East London secured Sheffield United’s play-off berth with one match to spare. Clough, nearing the end of his second season at Bramall Lane, was operating under overbearing pressure.
He had no compunction, however, about letting his raw academy lad off the leash at such a critical juncture of the campaign.
“Dom is great at holding the ball up,” said Clough. “He is someone we have been very interested in for quite a while now.
“He is a big lad, who is good technically for the stage he is at, and he is going to win headers against anybody. He has got an incredible spring. Providing Dom continues to work hard and apply himself, which we are sure he will, then he should have a good future ahead of him.”
Sheffield United stumbled in the play-off semi-finals and Clough lost his job. New boss Nigel Adkins sent the precocious attacker to League Two Northampton Town to further his education.
Calvert-Lewin’s memories of his first Football League start have not been clouded by time. He lined up for the Cobblers at Barnet’s neat Hive Stadium on 18 August 2015, the day he encountered Bira Dembele, a French defender who spent three-and-a-half unremarkable years in England.
Dembele returned across the Channel in the summer and is now displaying his wares for Laval, on the fringes of a play-off spot in France’s third tier.
He hopped on the ferry having played 100 matches on these shores, totting up 26 yellow cards and one red along the way.
Little surprise, then, that it was with some relish Dembele took it upon himself to introduce Calvert-Lewin to League Two.
“It was Barnet away and the centre-half just smashed me at a header,” said Calvert-Lewin of his maiden Football League start.
“It was like, ‘Welcome to League Two.’ I’m a big lad, so I’m bound to attract that. I had to get used to it. You can’t let it bother you. You’ve just got to get up and smash them even harder.
“Being away from Sheffield allowed me to mature a lot. And to see a different first-team environment, as well. That taught me to be more confident in myself and back my own ability more.”
This is where we can turn to Cresswell, once more, for conclusive evidence of Calvert-Lewin’s preternatural ability for absorbing lessons and imparting his new-found knowledge accordingly.
Cresswell is a defender by trade. Towering, muscular and combative, on the surface he represents the archetypal lower-league centre-half.
The 29-year-old is a product of the English game’s hard school. His list of former clubs reads like a directory of rudimentary football outfits: Bury, Rotherham United, Southend United and Fleetwood Town.
None of that, however, dissuaded Calvert-Lewin from mixing it with his new friend and teammate.
“I can’t remember if it was my lip or eyebrow,” says Cresswell with the casual air of a veteran of a thousand training-ground stramashes. “But the little s*d caught me in training and drew blood from my face.
“He was a tough little so and so. And you could see his work rate and athleticism. He can run, he can jump and he is deceptively quick… he is so quick when he gets going.
“He ran Manchester City’s centre-halves (Vincent Kompany, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, 140-plus international caps and eight domestic titles between them) into the ground earlier this season.
“I saw a side of him that night where I thought, ‘It was about time he started knocking a few people about’.
“He’s a big lad and I don’t think he realised how big and strong he could be.”
Calvert-Lewin operated as a lone striker in that match at Manchester City. He delivered a display packed with aggression, control and purpose – and, in teeing up Wayne Rooney to score Everton’s goal in a 1-1 draw, a deal of creativity, too. All the attributes David Unsworth recognised in him, in fact, firstly when Unsworth was head of academy coaching at Sheffield United, then again when, as Toffees Under-23 boss, he was the prime mover in bringing Calvert-Lewin to Goodison Park.
“He’s got a bit of everything,” Unsworth said last year.
“Throwback is not the right word, but he is so good in the air and, certainly for young players these days, it’s a rarity that someone who is so athletic, is as game in the air as him.
“He hasn’t got just one facet to his game, he is quick, he can go in behind, he can hold it up, he is good in the air. By no means am I saying he is the complete striker - he is a young boy, learning his trade - but there is an awful lot of potential to work with.
“I signed him as a 16-year-old at Sheffield United and I thought, ‘Wow’… this boy has got most things a Premier League player would need to have at a young age.
“There were no guarantees with him at that age, there is no guarantee with any player at 16, but having worked with him in his first-year scholarship - where he played as an attacking midfielder - I knew he had the temperament, he had the talent and, most importantly, the desire to work hard and listen.
“He’s a great listener, he takes on board information and applies it on the pitch. That, for me, is what marks out the best players.”
Calvert-Lewin returned to Sheffield United from Northampton in January 2016, after scoring eight goals in 26 appearances for the East Midlands club.
His loan team would go on to win the League Two title. Cresswell was minus a flat mate and personal dishwasher – “I made him do the pots, he used to chunter about that” – but he has carefully charted Calvert-Lewin’s rise from afar.
Or, when time allows, from a seat inside Goodison Park, bagged for him by his erstwhile teammate.
“I was speaking to his grandad at one of the games and said, ‘Dom has just gone, bang, bang, bang’,” says Cresswell.
To put some flesh on the bones of that statement, Calvert-Lewin started three League One matches for Sheffield United – the first a 1-0 victory at Doncaster on 13 February 2016 - before signing for Everton on August 2016’s transfer deadline day.
He was instrumental in England Under-20s becoming this country’s first world football champions in 51 years, with his goal in the final against Venezuela clinching the title.
In the near-15 months since he joined the Toffees – ostensibly as an Under-23 cub – Calvert-Lewin can now call himself a first-team regular. His full Everton debut sped around with unforeseen haste, against Southampton on 2 January this year.
Cresswell frequently bends his friend’s ear. “Mate,” he urges, “if you start scoring goals, you will be called up to the England squad.”
Cresswell explains: “That is all that is holding him back. He has everything else in his game.”
Calvert-Lewin, though, does not need telling. He had added another ‘bang’ to his startling rise by scoring on his England Under-21 debut in September. “I am always proud to put on the England shirt – and I do seem to be scoring a few for England. I just need to start scoring more for Everton now”, he commented soon after.
The very next day he struck twice in the Carabao Cup victory over Sunderland. Similarly, he emerged from the away dressing room at Brighton following the Toffees’ 1-1 draw last month and stood in front of a camera, talking unsparingly about the urgent need to locate his shooting boots.
Ten days later he found the net at Chelsea in the Carabao Cup. Most recently, Calvert-Lewin bemoaned his absence of Premier League strikes this term and, on his next outing, headed home a vital equalising goal against Watford – and later against Huddersfield.
England Under-20 boss Simpson swiftly identified Calvert-Lewin’s myriad attributes, determined to incorporate the player’s rounded personality into the guts of his country’s collective World Cup effort.
“Dom was a huge part of what we did on and off the field,” says Simpson. “He is a really sensible character and was important in making sure everybody was doing things properly off the field.
“He is an extremely good learner and was very keen to do everything right in training. He was a leader in the way he went about things. When you are on international duty, the time you have on the training field is limited. You are trying to conserve the players’ energy, so a lot of our stuff is done in the team room.
“He was a vocal character, when we were in group discussions about how we wanted to play and what we expected from our opposition. When we were doing our game review, he was always ready to contribute.”
Calvert-Lewin was still in his England kit, World Cup winners’ medal draped around his neck, when his mind drifted from South Korea back to L4. He expressed his delight at reaching the “pinnacle” of Under-20s football, then hurried his thoughts along to the prospect of accumulating more Premier League football in his legs.
“I have had a taste of it with Everton last season, and I just want to show I am capable of playing regularly next season,” said Calvert-Lewin.
Cresswell received a call from his friend in the final hours before Everton kicked off their campaign against Stoke City.
“Cressy, I’m playing right-wing back,” said Calvert-Lewin.
“Who do you think you are, David Beckham,” his friend joked.
Cresswell’s phone rang again shortly after the match. Calvert-Lewin had planted the most sumptuous of crosses on Wayne Rooney’s head for the game’s decisive goal.
“A little bit of Becks for you,” laughed the voice down the line.
“When I met him in the Northampton changing rooms, would I have said to you he would whip that ball in for Wayne Rooney to score on the opening day of a Premier League season?” says Cresswell.
“Absolutely no chance!
“But to be a part of his journey, I am as pleased as punch. I hope he goes even further and, I tell you what, he has already gone some way, hasn’t he?”